The Death of Bohemianism


S.C. Farrow

12/19/20225 min read

a man sitting at a table with a typewriter
a man sitting at a table with a typewriter

From the mid-nineteenth century, Montmartre in Paris became home to the city’s larger-than-life characters, commonly known as the bohemians. The term bohemian is derived from the French word bohémien which was used to describe the Romani people who make their way to Paris via Bohemia, which was bounded on the south by Austria, by Saxony on the north, by Bavaria on the west, and by Moravia on the east.

Interestingly, the name Bohemia actually comes from the Celtic people known as the Boii; however, by the fifth or sixth century, the Slavic Czechs had firmly established themselves in the area. But back to France… In the French imagination, literary and artistic bohemians were associated with Romani people because they were outsiders.

"There are two elements, at least, that are essential to Bohemianism. The first is devotion or addiction to one or more of the Seven Arts; the other is poverty. Other factors suggest themselves: for instance, I like to think of my Bohemians as young, as radical in their outlook on art and life; as unconventional, and, though this is debatable, as dwellers in a city large enough to have the somewhat cruel atmosphere of all great cities)." ~ Parry, 2005

The bohemian movement of late 19th century Paris believed that art and literature should be revolutionary, progressive, and radical. They shunned the Salon (the institution that controlled the art and literary market in France until the turn of the 20th century) and favoured the concept of living outside of the bourgeois, mainstream culture. They would gather in cafés and drink absinthe as they discussed politics, workers’ rights, and, or course, art and literature with like-minded practitioners.

Many bohemians were political anarchists or members of the Commune de Paris, a revolutionary government that seized power in Paris from March to May in 1871. In two short months, they established policies that favoured a progressive, anti-religious system of social democracy, which included a separation of church and state, the abolition of child labour, and the remission of rent. All Roman Catholic schools and churches were closed. The ideas of both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were influenced by the Commune de Paris.


The history of Montmartre’s streets and café life are well documented. And it was the one and only place to be during the Belle Époque (the Beautiful Epoch), generally considered to have spanned the years 1871 to 1914 and the outbreak of World War I.

"A Bohemian is simply an artist or 'littérateur' who, consciously or unconsciously, secedes from conventionality in life and in art." ~ Westminster Review, 1862

When you hear the word bohemian, you immediately think of eccentric artists living a life of pleasure and sexual freedom in 19th century Paris. Citizens of the world, these libertine and unbridled souls for whom artistic and sensual pleasures were primordial necessities, crowded together in notoriously wretched parts of the city where they could afford to rent the floor space (often unfit for habitation) necessary to practice and develop their creative work. The bohemians were often viewed as quirky and strange, and the imagination that drove them to create often destroyed them too.

However, there was another reason why so many creatives were drawn to the region—tax free wine! At the turn of the 20th century, Montmartre remained outside official city limits, which meant wine was not subject to Parisian taxes. The fact that Montmartre was awash with vineyards went a long way to making the location even more attractive.

It’s well known that artists Vincent Van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Pablo Picasso spent time in Montmartre. Alexandre Dumas fils (son of the famous Alexandre Dumas) was an author and playwright. Heinrich Heine, a renowned German poet and essayist, is one of Montmartre’s most famous foreign residents. And Stendhal, one of France’s greatest writers, described by Neitzsche as “France’s last great psychologist”, also made his home in the humble village.


Often associated with unorthodox or anti-establishment political or social viewpoints, everything the bohemians did and said was in response to the bourgeoisie's values and traditions, which they viewed as haphazard, vapid, and hypocritical. They were often described as rebels who enjoyed expressing their contempt for their bourgeois adversaries.

Living in poverty became a characteristic feature of the bohemian lifestyle, which in turn was romanticised and idealised in the artists’ work. The accumulation of money or wealth was not their priority or even their end goal. Money was viewed as nothing more than a means of survival so they could practice their art, so they could live for their art. Some of them stayed secluded, preferring to spend their entire lives creating art, music, or literature.

However, surprisingly, many bohemians came from bourgeois families. Living in poverty was an aesthetic choice and viewed as a rite of passage. These bohemians simply did not share the concerns of the working class.

For those who did not come from privileged backgrounds, if they were successful and their art was popular, the money they earned from the sale of their words provided them entrée into the bourgeois class they abhorred.

The bohemian lifestyle is often depicted as unorthodox, carefree, and full of joie-de-vivre; however, the reality is living in poverty is hard and anxious existence. When those born of privilege had endured their rite of passage, they returned to their family’s well-heeled embrace.


Many bohemians belonged a ‘circle’, a group whose members knew each other and shared similar opinions and mindsets, much like the Salons they eschewed but without any control whatsoever over the literary marketplace. Led by a host who steered the course of discussion and kept the event lively, these circles met regularly to drink and to share readings and intellectual discussions on topics of interest pertaining to art, politics, and philosophy of the day. The free and open discussion meant it was a place where many bohemians felt they “belonged”.

Interestingly, the haute bohème (literally “upper bohemian”) was a circle for the more economically privileged, wealthy, or even aristocratic bohemians.


The true bohemian movement began to die out at the turn of the 20th century. However, Montmartre and the bohemians represented potential and the idea that anything was possible. Whether its inhabitants aspired to paint a great masterpiece, compose a magnificent symphony, or to pen a great novel, Montmartre was home to that conceivability.

While the original bohemians have long since shuffled off this mortal coil, their spirit has well and truly lived on. In modern times, bohemian subcultures sprang up in capitalist cities across the Western world. The cheapest neighbourhoods in these cities, London’s Soho and Covent Garden, New York’s East Village, and LA’s Loft District became enclaves for nouveau bohemians who embraced the spirit and lifestyle of the Paris originals. Even in Melbourne, our own bohemian subculture flourished in the inner-city suburbs of St Kilda and Fitzroy.

And, of course, the movement had a huge influence of later movements such as surrealism, the beat generation, and even punk rock music.

Now, a combination of gentrification, the Internet, and even the Covid pandemic, has lured (forced?) 21st century bohemians onto the Internet. Digital bohemianism is here, and it is undoubtedly here to stay.

Bohemianism is a way of living. In the classical sense, bohemianism was about music, art, or literary pursuits. Today, bohemians are often identified as people who enjoy a loose lifestyle that includes illegal drugs, excessive alcohol, and unprotected sex. And while I may no longer be young, I am proudly and staunchly bohemian in the classical sense of the word. I believe that it is more important, and more valuable, to create art than it is to create wealth.

And without true bohemians, the world would be a truly boring and characterless place.


In case you’re wondering, historically, the Seven Arts were:

  • Astronomy

  • Mathematics

  • Geometry

  • Music

  • Rhetoric

  • Grammar

  • Dialectic (logic)

In modern times, they are considered to be:

  • Life Sciences

  • Physical Sciences

  • Logic, Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science

  • Philosophy

  • History

  • Social Science

  • Creative Arts

  • Bohemianism

  • Bohemian meaning

  • Bohemian life